BARACK OBAMA – The Audacity of Hope

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Acquired via BookCrossing 19 May 2009 – BookRing

Although my naievety about this book’s central premise was made more realistic when I was told that there is a genre of "manifesto" books written by politicians (I’ve only recently taken an interest in political history as opposed to Politics Now, so I’ve tended to read analyses and the odd memoir so far), this is a fascinating book.  It is a bit "Obama saves the world", as he takes different themes (business, foreign policy, family, race) and talks about the issues as he sees them, and possible solutions.  A writer with a real skill for making the political personal and for explaining concepts clearly and understandably, as we saw with "Dreams From My Father", he engages in the same interweaving of statements on policy and reflections on his own experience.  The section on foreign policy seems the most researched, as opposed to experienced, and the least confident, however this is to be expected, as he had experienced the other matters in hand as a community activist, lawyer and Senator.  

One of Obama’s chief moral standpoints is to not engage in negative campaigning.  I was interested to see how he spoke about current Senators and Presidents, and yes, he gives them their due when they deserve it, whether Clinton or Reagan.  This is refreshing, especially in contrast with the carping EU election leaflets we’ve been receiving recently, which only serve to do the other man down, it seems!

Having been written a relatively short time ago, I am now keen to find out if Obama is starting to put any of these putative policies into reality.   He does seem genuinely humble, and to have an equally genuine and strong vocation for public service.  He explains well the difficulties of remaining in touch with reality while a Senator; I hope he manages to now, as the President, and I’ll have a bit more of an understanding of what drives the man and his policies having read this book.

DAVID CRYSTAL – The Stories of English

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Acquired via BookCrossing 28 Feb 2009 – RABCK from Nice-Cup-of-Tea

I absolutely loved this book and can’t understand how I hadn’t read it before as it’s been around for a while.

Rather than the classic "story of English", this is the storIES of englishES, looking at the development of dialects, pidgins, creoles, the whole kit and caboodle, as well as the "standard" forms and how they came about.  A nice lot on Old English (I believe it should be taught in all English depts too!) and pitched just right, for both the more knowledgeable reader and the person who’s just interested in the subject.

I think what shines through is Crystal’s genuine love for linguistics, his real pleasure in picking at a tricky issue and his respect for and love of the variants of English in play all over the world and in the UK.

Thanks for a great read NCOT. I’m going to hang onto this till I find a copy for my Permanent Collection – available for loan though in the meantime!


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Acquired via BookCrossing 15 May 2009 – BookRing

I was a bit nervous of this one after my dislike of Second Honeymoon but actually enjoyed it.  Six women friends meet every Friday for years, then are thrown into turmoil when an extra man is introduced into the mix.  Really, this is an examination of the energies women throw into work or family, of whether they can have both and be happy.  It is well balanced, with forms of family being non-tradtional as well as traditional and work being just as fulfilling, but no more, than family.  The enigmatic Jackson is a cleverly done character who we only see in glimpses, and while there is a lot of telling and not much showing, the children are drawn beautifully and I love in particular the relationship between elderly Eleanor and eight year old Toby.  A well-done storyline with enough surprises and, although some of the plot resolutions seem a little hasty, an enjoyable read.

WAYNE LIONEL APONTE – The Year Of No Money In Tokyo

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04 May 2009 – LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme

This was in my Bonus Batch from LTER

Aponte, a Black American man who has been living in Japan for a number of years, messes up his life such that his only recourse is to sit down at the typewriter and write about his experiences of being poor and unemployed in Tokyo.  Gradually he re-establishes his life and work ethic, and draws conclusions from the growing process he experiences.

I was a bit non-plussed by this book at the beginning.  I thought it was going to be one of those books where somebody undergoes an experience on purpose (Julie and Julia, Nickeled and Dimed, One Red Paperclip…) and was then plunged into the author’s chaotic and selfish descent into a life on the edge of homelessness.   Admitting that this descent is caused by his own profligacy, short-termism and obsession with women, he proceeds to live off four different women, taking favours, money, meals and loans from each in turn in order to keep his head above water.  While this is resourceful, it doesn’t make for very pleasant reading, and some of the descriptive writing about the women is a little "strong" for maybe the average reader.  He seeks to explain himself, and as he then starts to find "salvation" through hard work, we see his mental processes and interests change and become more conventionally mature. 

Once you get past this rather grubby life that he’s embraced at first then seeks to escape, there are some interesting points made about Japan (especially the differences between the Japan of the tourist and the Japan of the locals, and the way that the lack of interest in the "real" Japan from the rest of the world helps the Japanese retain their self-image of safety etc) and about the reasons non-Japanese people go and stay there, in the portraits of his fellow language-school workers.  The view broadens out from the purely personal to a more wide and interesting canvas.  When he goes back to his native New York for a visit, some good points are made about culture shock, about not fitting properly into either culture for at least a while.

While I am pretty sure the author would not like his reviewers to pause too long on the issues of him being a Black American in Japan, rather than just an American in Japan, he does give some interesting vignettes, examining his viewing of the portrayal of Black people on Japanese television, believing he must acknowledge all people he meets of his own colour in case they feel he is ignoring them, and his anger at being congratulated in a book shop for being a Black man reading a book.  This does give an extra dimension to the usual "out of culture" books that exist in the genre.

Set in the mid-1990s recession in Japan, there are some interesting paralleles with today’s financial crisis and i’m wondering if that was why this book was published now – it’s a useful hook to hang it on.  There’s even a theme about those in financial straits turning on the outsiders in their society, which we’ve seen in the UK with the protests about non-UK workers.

I found this book interesting, and it’s certainly brave to be that unremittingly honest about your ways before you mend them.  It was a short book, and needed some editing work (this was not as far as I could see an ARC, but it had some repeated passages and messy tenses).  I can’t say I loved it, but it certainly improved as it went along.

ANDY BECKETT – When The Lights Went Out: Britain in the Seventies

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02 May 2009 – LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme

I was thrilled to win this in the Early Reviewers programme and delighted when a fully-polished, lovely hardback book arrived in the post.  Having recently developed an interest in history, and read with glee the Andrew Marr post-war history, I was eager to see what I could learn about this recent decade.

Like me, the author grew up in the 1970s and was keen to find out if it really was all disappointment, rubbish heaps and grey dinginess.  Like me, he had a very blurred understanding of the political figures of the time.  Unlike me, he’s a journalist of some renown and, armed with a good strong nose for destroying myth (and some excellent contacts) he sets out to examine the time, both through original sources, books written at and about the time, including works of history, memoir and polemic, and then with modern day visits and interviews.  This leads to a detailed and multifaceted book, which switches points of view and chronology often enough to remain interesting to the reader, while providing a good steady context and not confusing.

The picture of trade unionism and its relation with government is particularly strong in the book, but it also covers the various movements (gay and women’s lib, ecology, free festivals) that grew or strengthened in the decade, as well as giving a very detailed picture of the machinations of government.  There is a short chapter on Marxism which was mocked by a national newspaper reviewer for being a) short and b) about Beckett’s cousin, but it does fit in to the general context, with plenty of source material and a revolutionary interviewed in his later, less radical years. 

It helps, of course, that there are echoes of the seventies in today’s crises – climate warnings, terrorist threats and stagflation.  But this point is not laboured, and the book stands proudly on its own merits.  Thatcher looms over the second part of it, and I would like to see Beckett tackle the Eighties next – I’m sure he would do a good job.

MARIE BOSTWICK – A Single Thread

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22 Jan 2009 – from Julie

Evelyn Dixon moves from Texas to New England after her divorce leaves her reeling and lost.  She’s always wanted to run a quilt shop… and decides to do just that.  Just as she’s doing quite well and organising a Breast Cancer charity event, health issues hit and she’s forced to fall back on the support of some women she’s only just met, with her best friend and son at opposite ends of the country.

I enjoyed this read although worried at one point that it would go the way of the Friday Night Knitting Club.  Although there were some editing details (Margot switched between being blonde and brunette a couple of times!) and there was a slight feeling of a historican novel writer trying to get into contemporary writing by using the common (at the moment. Trendy?) theme of sewing shops and craft circles, there was a strong storyline and some lovely musings on quilting and community.

I see the author is turning this into a series, so it will be interesting to see how that develops.

Thanks Julie!


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From library

Another one snagged after coming through my cataloguing hands!  An excellent read – very funny – basically hints on novel writing hidden in hints on now NOT to write a publishable and readable novel – do make your characters boring etc etc.  Makes it difficult to read even a decent, published, novel without hole-picking but my reading habit survived my English degree so I’m sure I’ll be OK in the long run.  I think this would be a valuable addition to a beginner writer’s collection.

KATE MORTON – The Forgotten Garden

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Acquired via BookCrossing 30 Apr 2009 – BookRing

Nell has dim memories of being put onto a boat and arriving in Australia aged 4.  She is seen trying to piece together the mysteries of her background in 1975, and her granddaughter Cassandra has another go in 2005.  Set between these times, 1900 and 1913, and swapping between the UK and Australia, a complex narrative is maintained comprehensibly.

Like everyone else on the bookring, I read this pretty quickly when I got going with it.  I did enjoy it although I guessed the plot pretty quickly.  It isn’t the most literary of works, and I think there were times when the author didn’t know quite what genre she was writing in and got a bit carried away trying to cram all her research it.  The "Secret Garden" parallels were a bit creepy; having read a biog of Frances  Hodgson Burnett, she also started off poor, submitted stories to a magazine when young etc, so I thought Eliza was almost a portrait of her, then in strolls FHB herself… There were also a few oddities – Ruby’s job would be either as curator or as tour guide, there was little filled in about Cassandra’s mother, and what was with creepy Linus, who was not really developed and was a tad stereotypical (damaged man with damaged limb…)

So – hm, I was struggling to put something down about this.  Like her other book, The House At Riverton, I think it was trying to be something it wasn’t, a little.  Readable but a bit, tacky isn’t the word, but not as good as it could have been.  A bit Rosamund Pilcherish, nothing wrong with R.P. but sometimes one is left wanting a little more.  Would make a GREAT holiday read though!

Marilyn French – R.I.P.

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It’s a shame this wasn’t reported on the BBC and I can only find obituaries in the Telegraph and New York Times at the moment

French’s "The Women’s Room" was hugely influential on me as a young feminist.


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14 Jan 2009 – Red Cross charity shop

Virago Modern Classic No 5

I’m glad I’m not trying to collect all the VMCs as, although there are some I love, cherish and keep, I wouldn’t re-read all of them, and that’s my criterion for keeping a book as opposed to giving it away.

This is a slightly confused and confusing tale of Teresa, a passionate and unusual girl in 1930s poor suburban Australia, who yearns to be free, to practice free love and to study, in Europe if possible.  She forms an unfortunate attachment to her Latin tutor, Jonathan Crow, and aims to follow him to England, starving herself of beauty, love and food in the effort to do so.  

Set in Australia and England, this is reminiscent in the first half of a VMC called "Cindie" that I read a few months ago, and in the second half, of Patrick Hamilton’s "Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky" trilogy.  London is the London of my time there – Bloomsbury, Fleet Street, and interesting for that.  Jonathan’s theories are expounded in the first half to be destroyed in the second, and it is packed full of theory and feeling, which doesn’t always make for an easy or coherent read.

Interesting, as much for the historical descriptions as the story.

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